Sepia Tone

Friday, April 09, 2004

Aruna Srinivasan.
Singapore: 22.4.1996.

Contributed to Womens Feature Service and was picked up by a couple of European publications and Lokmat Times ( dated - 26.5.96) in India.

Politics is not their cup of tea

Recently Straits Times, the Singapore's daily, did a survey on potential women candidates for parliament. All ten of the women interviewed were already holding high profile posts in various fields. But when asked about their political ambitions, six declined to comment and the rest four stated that they were already happy with whatever they were doing. In short, politics was not on the cards for those women who were perceived as leaders in their own right in their respective fields.

The world over, women do not take to politics as readily as the men do. Women heads of state are not in overwhelming majority though women do figure largely as members of parliament or at grassroots and community levels. Singapore is no exception. And like the rest of the world Singapore also realizes the absence of women in the parliament and wants to do something about it. The Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's open concern recently about the lack women's participation in Singapore's politics evidently shows that this island nation is trying to add colour to her parliament by roping in the women talent. He had said that he would be happy to see at least two to three women in the coming polls, although his original target was six.

But there are not many takers for the Prime Minister's appeal it appears. Singapore women just are not willing to have a feel of the parliament. At least not yet. However, no one in the country, is averse to the idea of a woman politician or even a woman prime minister as revealed from a random interview with a cross section of the people in Singapore by this correspondent. A majority of the individuals one spoke to, agree that women should enter politics and that there should be more representation of women in the parliament. And the reasons were varied. While some observed that women are increasingly becoming educated and independent and therefore are capable of voicing the needs of women in an effective way in parliament, there were others like Mr. M.P. Kanisan, CEO, Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), who felt that women should be represented in parliament not only for the cause of women but also in their capacity as individuals, working for the welfare of the society in general too. And some others pointed out that more women candidates could actually translate into more women voters.

Says Nominated Member of Parliament, Dr. Kanwaljit Soin, " The government might have felt the need to rope in the women voters, by allowing more women candidates in the election. Second reason could be that they might have realized that women's perspectives do matter in any issue and that they are capable of bringing in solutions and suggestions from different angles. After all diversity of opinions and ideas is important in parliament. As long as you don't have equal participation of women in the parliament how can you have a balance in the debates and the discussions and the subsequent decisions of the parliament? Thirdly it is a way to utilize the human resources. Women form 50 % of the populace. Their potentials ought to be tapped in for the progress of the country. "

Born in Punjab before pre-partition period and migrated to Indonesia with her family, Dr. Soin, was educated in Singapore when her businessman father decided to give her proper English education. An Orthopedic surgeon by profession, her interests in women's issues through the organization called "Association of Women for Action and Research ( AWARE )of which she is a founder member, brought her to the threshold of politics when she was nominated by the government as a member of parliament in 1992. The concept of nominated Member of Parliament was introduced in Singapore in the early nineties. Till 1981, there was hardly any opposition in the parliament. So to bring in different perspectives to debates and issues, certain members of the society were nominated to the parliament by the government. This scheme was started only in 1991. Ever since her nomination to the parliament, Dr. Soin has been raising several issues in the parliament in the interests of women as well as the society as a whole. Her recent attempts to introduce a bill on "Family Violence " in the parliament kept the media and the nation engaged in a series of debates and discussions for months. Unfortunately the bill was voted against.

Confident of women's capacity to achieve great things in life, Dr. Soin is quite vocal about women entering politics. " Of course women should take an active interest in politics. I am sure there will be more women entering the parliament in future. A women Prime Minister for Singapore might be a forlorn thought today - but not in ten years or so. By then women might attain that position. But today there is not a single woman full minister in the PAP party. Also, women enter politics only after they are free from their family commitments - say, in mid forties. But men enter sooner - in their thirties. Therefore women find it harder to climb the political ladder and hence there are fewer women at the top. Only after there are a critical number of women at the top, can a woman Prime Minister emerge, " she elaborates.

There were a few individuals however like Josephine Lim A.C. a real estate agent, who felt that politics is not for women and that a woman's priority lies with the family. " But then, it is my personal view. If a woman has what it takes to be a politician - the vision and the passion to work for the country as a whole, plus the temperament to face the odds - then I don't see why she shouldn't take to politics. Yes it is not impossible for a woman to become a prime minister here. But it may not be in the near future. Because in Singapore politics, women are not yet as experienced as the men are. And somehow women don't like to enter politics. They think it is men's job. " she observes. And the potential candidates interviewed by Straits Times appear to share similar sentiments if not in so many words. Why do the Singaporean women shy away from politics ?

It needs a an insight into the history. Circumstances, which lead to Singapore's emergence as an independent state, were different from those, which brought about the change in other ex-colonies in Asia. Most countries had to wrench their freedom from the colonial master. Whereas Singapore's was a case , where the independence came unexpectedly upon leaving the Malaysian federation. Singapore leaders often have observed how the nationhood was thrust on them. Thus, although Singapore had its own share of battle for independence, her birth as an independent nation did not involve the kind of mass movement, which most of the newly liberated colonies had to undergo. And since women were part of any mass movement, many countries witnessed a generation of women who took active part in politics. But in Singapore such a necessity did not exist.

Singapore's history traces back to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading agreement under an agreement between the British East India Company and the Sultan of Johor and the Malay ruler of the island. Later Singapore was incorporated with Malacca and Penang to form the Straits Settlements, which was under the control of Governor - General of India for sometime. After the Second World War the island was made a crown colony when six elected members out of a total of 22 members for the Legislative Assembly were included for the first time. It was in 1959 that the first General elections were held for Legislative Assembly of the State of Singapore and People's Action Party (PAP) came to power. When the Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed a proposal for a formation of Malaysia, the Singapore government gave its support for the federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. With the formation of Malaysia, Singapore became independent within the federation of Malaysia. By 1965, Singapore became a fully independent and sovereign nation on separation from Malaysia and that was the turning point when the State of Singapore became the Republic of Singapore.

" Singapore's birth was a unique one, in marked contrast with the birth of some other nations in Asia, " observes Dr.Kripa Sridharan, a political scientist working in the National University of Singapore (NUS). " Singaporeans - both men and women - by and large are not inclined a political career. The reason for urging women to enter politics is perhaps to create role models for the future generation. For women, politics is a public activity and not many are willing to expose themselves to its perils. And most of the women who are career minded think that if you have talent, you will do well anyway in any field; there is not enough motivation to enter public life for them. They are very private individuals. "

It was not that Singapore never had any women politician. " Singapore Woman," a collection of works edited by Alien K.Wong ( now the senior minister of state for education and Health ) and Leong Wai Kum, throws light on some of the prominent Singaporean women who were active in parliament in the fifties and right through the early seventies. Infact, according to the book, at the dawn of independence in 1965, "....women activists were enlisted to serve in community centres and to reach out to the masses in explaining government policies....." At that time the number of women in parliament were three, which soon reduced to nil with the exit of Madam Chan Choy Siong and Mrs.Devan Nair. And the vacuum continued for nearly 14 years till a set of three elected women members of parliament arrived on the scene. One of the reasons cited for the lack of woman representation in the parliament for a long period of 14 years was that the new nation was keen to have only a group of well-educated and qualified members at the helm of affairs.
And obviously not a great number of women in those days possessed the necessary requisites. The book observes that in those days " ...... there was a diversion of women's efforts away from women's issues. " At one stage Madam Chan Choy Siong was the only woman MP, left to do women's work single - handedly. " ..... She persevered and even attempted to persuade the government to start a Woman's Institute, but failed to move in line with the party's new thinking. In 1970 this pioneer finally stepped down to make way for new PAP members who would all be better educated than many of the old guard." But towards the eighties, the Singapore women became well educated and efficient - were found fit enough to take up leadership roles in public life. And thus the eighties saw the return of women to parliament albeit in limited numbers.

But the trend failed to catch up in a big way due to various social factors. First, the women by now were caught up in a different mission; that of improving the economical status- of the individual families and in turn that of the nation's. In general, a man or a woman takes to politics, usually driven by an urge to serve a cause - often one, which sprang from miseries of one or the other kind.

Says Sridharan, " At least if you had cruel social evils which are the causes for organizations and leaders to emerge, you would have perhaps seen some women leaders - apparently fighting for a cause. " When life is on a placid level socially, there is no strong motivating element in the society to create leaders. But in the budding nation that Singapore was in those days, the concentration was totally on building up the country to meet the challenges of the ever changing world ". Adds Kanisan, " There was never any need for anyone to enter into politics - even men did not enter into politics in a big way. People were confident that the government was in good hands. And women thought that it was men's job. And as for themselves they were busy with their own jobs and were striving to excel in them. They, therefore, hardly had the time or the motivation to enter into politics. "

Lack of interest in politics is one obvious reason why Singapore women have not taken up to politics although there is no dearth for capable women in Singapore to play a leadership role in politics. In fact the number of women heading the organizations in government departments as well as in the private sector companies appears to be growing tremendously. On the other hand there seems to be a need for more fresh members in politics who are capable and efficient enough to continue the development works of the present generation of politicians. The leaders often stress in their public speeches of the need for younger generation to take an active interest in politics. Observers point out that the present generation of leaders might be feeling that the potentials of women should be tapped into public life also since they have already proved themselves in other areas.

But the women don't feel the urge for public life. " I would not consider entering politics because there is plenty to do where I am. My two concurrent jobs have allowed me to satisfy my sense of public and political duty, " observed Professor Chan Heng Chee, who once was Singapore's permanent representative to U.N. and presently the director of Institute of South-east Asian Studies and executive director of Singapore International Foundation, in her interview to the Straits Times. Also a political career in Singapore is not something an individual decides by herself or himself. Nor does a leader emerge automatically by mass support as it happens in other parts of the globe Four of the women have expressed that Singapore's political culture was such that a person had to be invited into the fold, to become a politician.

Says Soin, " In Singapore the political agenda is set by the government. The attitude is that ' you have elected us to govern. Then trust us. We would do the best.' We have a Group Representative Constituency system wherein certain areas are pooled into one big constituency and four members from a party, stand for election in that constituency. Every contending party should ensure that out of the four candidates one is from a minority community. This way chances of a minority community missing a parliament seat are eliminated. Similarly, I once mooted the idea to create a scheme wherein one of the GRC candidates must be a woman. But somehow the suggestion has not been taken up."

Changes and transformation don't happen overnight in any society. A woman Prime Minister may not be shaping up presently in Singapore. But nonetheless, the nation is gearing up to have more women in the parliament in the coming elections - if women give a serious thought to the call from the Prime Minister. It is a question of time.